Lucy Dacus is a 23 year-old singer-songwriter from Richmond, Virginia who has achieved immense success within the space of a few short years. Her debut album sparked a bidding war in 2016 involving more than 20 record labels, and her follow-up, Historian was released to much fanfare last year. She spoke to us on the road, somewhere “in Oklahoma or Texas”, having just awoken from a nap.
You’ve described your first album as “lighthearted”, whereas you’ve described your second album, written following a breakup, as “a lot heavier”. Is it easier to write from a place of happiness or a place of sadness?
I think I write from a place of confusion. And probably from an effort to find happiness or contentedness. I think that I’m always trying to understand things that have happened to me or thoughts that are in my brain and – or the people around me, and writing songs has always been the outlet for that, even before I started playing. Or sharing them with people and uh, I still think the most important function of my music is that, in my, you know, in the processing of my life. But it’s nice that it can be helpful for others, if it’s serving that purpose.
If you, at a base level, acknowledge that there’s no meaning innately, to anything, you’re kind of in control of what meaning you bring into your life.
I understand you were adopted at a young age and raised Christian. Recently you stated that these days you believe a lot of things in life are meaningless. How does God, if at all, fit into your view of a meaningless existence?
Well, I mean I kind of cultivated that belief while I was still calling myself a Christian, because there’s the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament where Solomon is, you know, saying that life is meaningless and everything that you value will crumble, like nothing lasts. And that can be a really anxiety-inducing statement. But for me it was always a great sense of comfort because it also meant that everything that felt like it was wrong, everything that felt out of place, I knew that it would come to pass, also. It also sort of encourages a sense of freedom with your actions, like it brings sort of a levity to life. And also if you, at a base level, acknowledge that there’s no meaning innately, to anything, you’re kind of in control of what meaning you bring into your life and what meaning you build. And that’s kind of a – that’s kind of what life is about, the creativity that goes into the finding and accepting meaning for what your life is. Actually, like, that’s kind of the core of what I would call my like, spiritual practice at this point.
Given your success, do you believe in destiny and fate, at all?
Um, again like I don’t know if I believe in destiny and fate as like the guiding principles of something. I feel that people really do have a lot of freedom over their choices, but I do appreciate the things that feel full-circle or feel like they were destined to be, because I feel like there’s a lot of peace when you, you know, you get a point in your life where you feel sated to where you are. And yeah, I guess like destiny and fate, they sound like things that are in the future but they can only be acknowledged, you know, retrospectively into the past… If you look back and say ‘this was my destiny’, like that’s just kind of a call after the fact. And you could say that about anything, I think.
Mental health is a huge issue for musicians. At age 19, more than 20 record labels were trying to court you. Looking back on it now, how would you categorise your state of mind, and what kind of support was provided to you at the time?
I felt kind of manic, honestly, because I really wanted to have steady ground. I didn’t want to make rash decisions. I tried to be really careful, hear everybody out. I tried to remember that people were interested in my music as a commodity and as a money-making venture, whether they like it as art or not. I think that even though those aren’t the lovelier sides of the music industry, it was really helpful to be reminded of that. Um, I have a friend named Tyler Williams, he’s in the band The Head and the Heart. He also lives in Richmond, Virginia. He was one of my early managers and he had been through it before, signing to Sub Pop for his band’s first record. He had a lot of really good advice, like, from the road, from touring and from working with the label before. It was nice to get the artist’s perspective early on.
They have absolutely zero say in the content of the record. Like they don’t even want to hear demos.
Does Matador offer any form of mental health support to its artists?
Yeah, I mean, not in a traditional way of like, you know, providing therapy or something. I don’t think any label would do that, directly, but they’re such supportive people and friends and I feel like they’re all so willing to know me as a person. And they’re very interested in, you know, making sure that I feel good about how the record is being released. They have absolutely zero say in the content of the record. Like they don’t even want to hear demos. They straight-out just want me to finish a record and then put it out. And I really value that freedom and the respect that they give me. It’s one of the main reasons that I chose them, because you know, they sign artists for who they are and just trust them to make the work that they want to make and realise that their job is to just put it out. You know, I feel very trusted and yeah, like, I don’t know, I could go to any of them to talk through any of my confusions as a musician and they would – they would be there for me, I think.
I’m not playing a character and I kind of wish that I was… I do feel like I work a 24/7 job because my job title is Lucy Dacus and I can’t not be myself.
You’ve previously said that wearing red lipstick on stage puts you “in a different state of mind”. Would you say you’re playing a character on stage?
I’m not playing a character and I kind of wish that I was because I’m really bad at acting. I don’t think that I’m ever anybody other than myself. When I’m on stage, I’m just myself. But I know artists that have a character and so they have this separation from their work life and their personal life. And I do crave that sometimes because I do feel like I work a 24/7 job because my job title is Lucy Dacus and I can’t not be myself. And so it, you know, at every point it’s either – even when I’m on vacation, it’s like, ‘oh you’re culling experience or writing songs.’ You know, people say things like that. But yeah, I think I would be really bad at acting, or really bad at developing a character beyond who I am. I would feel disingenuous and right now I do feel like I’m just talking to people and I don’t mind if they’re seeing me clearly.
In researching for this interview I discovered that Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s vice-presidential pick, listed you as one of his favourite artists. How did you react to that when you heard it? And now that you have a politician’s ear, do you think you’ll start sewing overtly political messages into your music?
(Laughs) Well Tim Kaine is the Senator for Virginia, where I’m from, and I went to kindergarten with his daughter. And so he’s like an old family friend. I used to go to, when he was governor, I would go have sleepovers at the Governor’s Mansion and – they’re all still, you know, everyone’s a little busy now, I haven’t really hung out with them in a while. But, he was kind of just like my friend’s dad and I really didn’t know about his career until like much later. And uh, yeah, it’s really sweet of him to want to support me and he does listen to the music. And yeah, I don’t know, I appreciate it a lot. It’s just – it’s funny that that’s like one of the qualifying factors of my personality now, or my musical history, it’s just that Tim Kaine likes it. Just because I’m like, ‘oh yeah, my friend’s dad’. It like, doesn’t really make sense to me. Though, I can kind of see why it’s a big deal.
I still think that maybe women are commodified to a higher standard than men, usually.
What are the greatest barriers to entry for female musicians these days and what are some of the best ways to overcome them?
Well, I feel like the barriers to entry are – some of them are falling down. I think the best thing that can happen are just more and more girls like, start playing music and playing out just so that other girls can see it and it’s a chain effect. I know that I’m on the other end of that chain at this point. Seeing some of these people, musicians, seeing that it’s possible, not thinking that I wasn’t allowed to do it. And then it’s also a responsibility of press outlets, and like clearly we’re doing an interview. So that’s getting better. The press has tried to make an effort to promote bands led by women. I still think that maybe women are commodified to a higher standard than men, usually. Like they have to be – it seems like women who are young and pretty and have catchy music that is relatable – like, it checks off all the boxes. Like, I’d love to see more women, you know, being celebrated for experimental music or for punk music. Like it’s, you know, not commercially viable music. I think that artistic music, that’s maybe an area where women, you know, could be more celebrated. And there are exceptions to the rule. Grouper’s one of my favourite artists and I find her music to be, you know, not as like commercial, but incredibly inspiring and beautiful. So yeah, we’ll see what the future holds on that front.
Are you an advocate for gender quotas in regards to say, airplay or press coverage?
I feel like um, I don’t know – it’s always nice to see equal representation. I don’t know if there should be like a specific percentage. I think, overall, you should write about the music that excites you… the step that’s most crucial is to just try to find music by artists like that, that you do admire. Like try to find music by non-white musicians and try to find music by indigenous people and try to find music by, you know, people from a lower class. You know, like classism is also a huge thing when it comes to entertainers. And so I feel like that is done on the individual level and journalists you know, above all, are a singular person with taste. And so they kind of are representing every other singular person with taste, and kind of showing the way. And so yeah, that would be, I think, the most powerful action toward change.
What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve ever received?
Hmm. I can’t think of like a quippy one-liner best piece of advice that I’ve received. But when we were opening for Sylvan Esso a couple years ago, Amelia (Meath) came up to me before I could come up to her and was like, “Oh my God, I love your music. I’m so excited for you to be on tour with us.” And she and Nick (Sanborn) had put a bouquet of flowers in my green room with a note saying like, “We’re so happy you’re here. Love your music.” Which made me feel super – like I belonged. And I was intimidated at first because I have loved their music for so long and I didn’t know how I was going to be able to talk to them, how we would be able to relate. I was worried they would be impersonal. And I think the lesson I learned from that is to just like, reach out with kindness, always. And especially for the people you know you’re going to be spending time with, just like, first impressions – let people know that you appreciate them and that you belong in the same space. I try to be, you know, very engaged with the people that open for us. And it makes everyone’s lives more fun on tour. Um, yeah, I appreciate them as mentors.
If you could collaborate with any artist, in any medium, past or present, who would it be and what would you ideally create?
Hmm. Well, last night we played Austin, Texas and it happened to be Shakey Graves Day, which is an annual day. It’s celebrating Shakey Graves. He was an early influence of mine for playing guitar because I play in this open-tuning and I’ve never taken music classes. But I would watch his live videos and see his chord shapes and you know, learn chords from that. And so it was cool to see him, he played a show for like a hundred people in a tiny room, which is, you know, so much lower than what he usually does. And I was reminded again of what a good storyteller he is and what a creative musician – I don’t know what we’d do, but like, maybe that would be fun. I don’t know.